Smaller Casualties: An Interview with Abby E. Murray

Author photo of Abby Murray. She sits against a mural with an assortment of rainbow umbrellas.

In this interview conducted by John Sibley Williams, award-winning poet Abby E. Murray discusses the unexpected embrace from the military community of her culturally critical poetry, the struggles of being a progressive feminist military spouse, and how empathy and ostracization play crucial roles in her work—a balance between witness and action. She expounds upon what it’s like to launch her debut full-length poetry collection in a time of political crisis and quarantine and breaks down one of her more intimate poems, forcing us to confront the corporeal reality of war and the incredible power of creatively addressing that reality.

Abby E. Murray is the editor of Collateral, a literary journal concerned with the impact of violent conflict and military service beyond the combat zone. She teaches rhetoric in writing military strategy for U.S. Army War College fellows from the University of Washington, and she offers free creative writing workshops for immigrants, soldiers, veterans, and their loved ones around Tacoma, Washington, where she is the city’s poet laureate. Her first book, Hail and Farewell, won the Perugia Press Poetry Prize and was released in September 2019.

John Sibley Williams: Abby, thank you so much for joining me, and congratulations on publishing your first book, Hail and Farewell, with Perugia Press. It’s a poignant, empathetic, yet culturally critical exploration of womanhood, parenting, and perhaps most prominently, the smaller casualties of war. Let’s start with this last theme. Can you tell me about your experience with military life, and how it has affected your worldview and your writing?

Abby E. Murray: Thanks for inviting me, and for your kind words about my book.

Military life for a spouse isn’t exactly ideal for feminist vegetarians who believe there is immense value in questioning commands and very little value in small talk. When Tom and I were first married, I was expected to do a lot of things I didn’t want to do. Go to this party. Don’t talk to that woman. Talk to this woman. Go to this ball. Throw a party. Say this. Don’t say that. Wear gloves. Don’t wear gloves. Pivot for the flag. No, no, no, no, no. I love my husband but was constantly looking for ways to avoid military functions. It seemed better for both of us.

I spent the first ten years of our marriage moving around the country, sometimes every six months. I wrote but didn’t feel like I had access to a grad program until I learned about the low residency MFA at Pacific University. I really felt supported there. In 2012, while Tom was in Afghanistan, I moved our household goods to New York to start my PhD, and he joined me afterward. I stopped waiting to live the way I wanted to live. I wrote and published and worked for literary nonprofits and collaborated and taught. And it wasn’t always pretty at home, but we’re figuring it out.

I guess, in a way, living in close proximity to the military has been an effective way for me to learn the value of my independence and gifts. I’m definitely more confident now than I was sixteen years ago. Then, I assumed the military had some institutional right to tell me how to act and live and cooperate and be married. The military is a powerful machine; it’s normal to feel intimidated. But my experiences and voice matter. I know I need to write and teach, and I’m able to recognize when some military communities and individuals can support me. I bring writing into military communities in a way that is my own, and I know how to love my husband without sacrificing myself for his career.

Williams: That sounds like an emotionally complex situation. Pertaining to your efforts to “bring writing into military communities in a way that is my own,” how do you bring your feminist, anti-war voice (which is overtly critical of these very military communities) to people who might passionately oppose your viewpoint? Do you find they empathize with your criticisms? Is there blowback? Given the gender inequality you discuss in your poetry, do you find the women in these communities embrace your vision tighter than the men?

Murray: I mean, the most effective way to bring my writing into military communities is to publish, get read, and be present on post for workshops and conversations and chances to build relationships. Hail and Farewell has had a warm reception from readers in the military (family, veterans, and service members alike), which I’ve welcomed but do find a little surprising sometimes. I expect some pushback and have received some, particularly concerning my criticism of the passing phrase ‘thank you for your service.’ But for the most part, spouses in particular are coming up to me after readings and saying ‘Yes! Thank you!’ The truth is, the military is made up of individual people, and there is no way to categorize them in a single way.

People sometimes read my poems and take away assumptions I disagree with—assumptions they brought to the poems personally, rather, and refound. At first, I struggled with this. I didn’t want people walking away with an impression of me I don’t recognize. For example, in “Homecoming,” I was told it’s easy to assume the fire consuming the speaker is a vehicle for a wife’s longing to reunite, when I wrote it imagining the fire as forced participation in unexamined patriarchal traditions. My experience in homecoming ceremonies is not one defined by patriotism but resistance. Often, I’ve noticed that readers who interpret the poems differently than they were written are men, but I’m not sure what to do with that observation yet.

I’m lucky to have wise friends, one of whom told me I needed to let my need for controlling readers’ interpretations go; we can and will connect with these poems through their own memories and perceptions. That’s supposed to happen, and it doesn’t change the poem’s origins or voice.

Williams: You mention not wanting readers to “take away assumptions” you disagree with. That’s a struggle for all poets, as everyone brings their own baggage and cultural perspective with them. How do you compose poems so that they speak clearly to your desired interpretation, while avoiding didacticism or preachiness?

Murray: I try to keep my poems as true to my voice as possible, avoiding any poetic gymnastics that, while flashy, won’t carry my experiences or my ordinary tone. I’m not the preachy sort—I like to listen and can be full of crap sometimes—so the effort really lands on my letting go of readers’ assumptions or expectations. I do, however, love when readers identify with the way I incorporate resistance into my work.

Williams: As you’ve had to move your family a number of times due to your partner’s military service, how does that shifting of home affect your creative perspective? Do you write better in new situations, new homes, or do you find greater inspiration in stillness?

Murray: I think I write well through isolation, so moving to new places and being an outsider has given me time and space to work. For example, when we moved from Georgia to Colorado, Tom deployed pretty soon after we arrived. I didn’t know anyone there. I felt taken away from my home, the Pacific Northwest, and ‘dropped off’ in a community that didn’t really see me. But I was able to get a job teaching at the community college, and my first chapbook was published by Lost Horse while I lived there. I started a reading series with the encouragement of my students and colleagues. By then, I knew I needed to build what I wanted but didn’t have. Just a few years before that, for Tom’s first assignment, we moved from Washington to Alaska; same situation—didn’t know anyone—but I spent all day applying for jobs, working odd ones, or writing by the window, watching for moose. I got a lot done.

Williams: I, too, have enjoyed some of my most prolific writing periods when living away from home for long stretches of time. Do you think it helps spark creativity when we feel a bit estranged, an ‘outsider’ in an unfamiliar community? Why do you think that is?

Murray: Honestly, I’m not sure. I do most of my writing while feeling like an outsider. When you don’t feel accepted or included, you can be gifted with more time to think and work, when you might otherwise be occupied with the rigors of fitting in.

That said, I write well when I’m under pressure from several deadlines—so if things are too quiet, too comfortable, I struggle to find a creative rhythm. Pressure and isolation may not be healthy enough to recommend, but sometimes they lead to impressive results.

Williams: In your poem, “Bones,” you describe being at a wounded soldier’s bedside, writing “shrapnel / spiraling up the leg . . . like / morning glories curling round a fencepost.”  Your collection as a whole finds unique ways of painting beautiful images upon a fierce, raw canvas. What is it about human suffering that brings out some of your most gorgeous language?

Murray: Perhaps it isn’t the beauty of language so much as the gift of interacting with truth—something that can feel surprising and unsettling. Although, I see how the possibility of this interaction hinges on language. The fact is, we (as a society) aren’t eager to know much about the impact of war; we understand, I think, on some level, that people are wounded, but I wouldn’t say we seek out the realities of combat-related death, survival, and injury—the IV poles and burial options or rituals, the rolls of gauze and pale, prepackaged hospital salads.

I was sitting at the bedside of a wounded soldier whose family couldn’t get to the base he deployed from quickly. Since my husband deployed from that station as well, and I stayed behind, I was nearby.

Dressing changes are part of the healing process for open wounds. Kegley said I could stay when the nurse came in, and when the direction and depth of the shrapnel paths were laid bare, I recognized them as vines on a fencepost: constricting, amazing, and brutal. You might’ve too. But confronting reality like this jolts us alive. I mean, Jesus, we’re sending our children to war, we’re voting for shrapnel like weeds, we’re exposing our children to death. This is human life, these are bones, breakable and bloody.

Williams: Confronting the fragility both of our own bodies and of our preconceived notions of the “other” (which we tend to marginalize, suppress, and injure) are themes that echo across your work. And your way of expressing them balances witness and action, quietly listening and getting your hands dirty. To me, this speaks to one of the core philosophies of poetry: the ability to empathize. What would you consider some of the other cornerstones to writing poetry that jolt us awake and keep us emotionally glued to the page?

Murray: Actually, for me, that’s one of poetry’s defining characteristics—the way it listens and acts simultaneously. We enter poems to hear, witness, and remember, but we also arrive because we must act. I’ve had a lot of conversations about this, actually, with service members and military families. The stereotypical perception of poets is as spectators, scribbling what they see without making change, and we often see military individuals as actors, always thrown into constant cause-and-effect scenarios. Neither is true all the time.

Writing poetry in times of upheaval destabilizes and dismantles, but it also grounds and connects. It frees us. It’s an art that cannot be extracted from its creator.